In Brazil, as in the United States, most people do not vote for a president on the basis of foreign policy issues. Yet sometimes the result matters for the rest of the world -- as when President George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election, and subsequently started two destructive, costly and unnecessary wars.
There is no doubt that Lula has changed Brazil's foreign policy and has joined with other left-of-center Latin American leaders in bringing about historic changes in the region. South America especially has become more independent than it has ever been. These changes have been so profound that even a right-wing government such as Colombia finds itself increasingly drawn to join the rest of South America on regional issues -- despite its dependence on hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid. When the Honduran government was overthrown by the military last year, South America was unanimous in demanding the immediate and unconditional re-instatement of the elected president, José Manuel Zelaya.
Washington, by contrast, did everything it could to support the coup government in Honduras, and to legitimize its civilian successor. The Obama Administration -- which has not changed the Bush Administration's policy towards Latin America -- has pursued a simple strategy of "roll-back." They want to regain the power and influence that they have lost. It is no coincidence that their only dependable allies in Latin America are right-wing governments -- because it is the left governments that have led the successful independence movement of the last decade.
José Serra has attacked Lula for the government's stance on Honduras and has criticized other left governments such as Bolivia on dubious charges such as "complicity" in the drug trade. He has also criticized Lula for his efforts to mediate in Washington's dispute with Iran, and in the Middle East generally. Dilma Rousseff, by contrast, has indicated that she would continue Lula's independent foreign policy.
This election is therefore very important for the region and the world. Lula incurred the wrath of the Washington foreign policy establishment when, together with Turkey, his government helped negotiate a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran last May. New York Times pundit Tom Friedman called these efforts "shameful" and "as ugly as it gets." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "a transparent ploy to avoid Security Council action."
There is no doubt whom all of these people are rooting for in the Brazilian presidential race, even if they are mostly smart enough to keep quiet.
But Lula's government was trying to avoid yet another unnecessary war in Iran, something that the world desperately needs to do. The Workers' Party policy of promoting regional economic integration is also a big plus for regional stability and peace. The reconciliation efforts currently under way between Colombia and its neighbors are partly driven by the billions of dollars of commerce between these countries, especially Colombia and Venezuela.
The world eagerly awaits the choice of Brazil's voters, which will resonate far beyond its borders.
This column was published by Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil) on October 8, 2010.